Jimena countryside walk-11/12/10

11 December 2010

My friend has a house near the town of Jimena de la Frontera, set in an area of lowland farmland on the edge of the Alcornocales Natural Park. As we both have hectic Christmas schedules about to get going, she invited me over this afternoon so we could take the last walk of 2010 in the Cadíz countryside.

As I drove there, travelling along the scenic road from Sotogrande down to the main San Roque to Gaucín road (the A-405), I had a wonderful encounter with a flock of Griffon Vultures that were heading across the valley towards me, some at eye-level with the car and others passing above me. The bright sun made them appear even more dramatic and squinting upwards while trying to stay on the very bendy road, I counted 17 of them.

 

Before venturing out to walk we sat outside in the sheltered garden to have a cup of tea and begin some leisurely birdwatching. At this time of year that may include any of the many small birds that are resident or overwinter here, including Chiffchaff, Serin, Black Redstart, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Blackcap and House Sparrows to name some.
There were birds, but my eye was taken by Grasshoppers – big Egyptian ones that appeared to have taken up camp in a blue flowering Plumbago shrub against a sunny garden wall. There must have been a dozen or so of them of varying sizes, but only one of them was a female, identifiable by her considerably greater size. A smaller male had laid claim to her and the pair clung to a branch near the top of the shrub, while the others occupied various spots lower down.
 

Egyptian Grasshoppers-smaller male on top, probably mating

 

Egyptian Grasshopper (Anacridium aegyptium) SPANISH – Langosta egipcia
 

One of several males-in-waiting. Males can grow to about 3.5cm in length; females 6.5cm. Eyes of both sexes at all stages of development are striped.

 

Towards the top of the same shrub a Praying Mantis had constructed an oothra, (egg case) these are quite a common sight suspended from the end of twigs in a variety of habitats, often they look dry and brown, but this one was a creamy colour and very fresh-looking with a waxy-looking coating.

A fresh, tightly sealed Oothra (egg case) of a Praying Mantis. The insect manufactures quickly hardening foamy layers, sandwiching her many eggs between them.

We began our walk by following a track down towards the river. Numerous Cattle Egrets and a few White Storks were out hunting, mostly in an area of damp, long grass but also out in the open. I photographed these Storks, with their breast feathers puffed out resting in the warm, bright sunshine at the edge of a field.

White Storks resting on the sunny field edge

This largely agricultural area is made up if a patchwork of variously sized farms, some very small and the land is put to a variety of uses. Crops grown include grains, vegetables, sunflowers and citrus fruits. Animals are also kept, sheep, cattle and horses graze in the open fields and on rough pastureland. The whole area provides a rich habitat for birds all year round, but autumn and winter see numbers and species swelled considerably. Along this short stretch of track we saw a good number and selection of species around the hedges and shrubbery; Serins, Blackcaps, Goldfinches, Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits and a sizeable flock of House Sparrows.

Orange crops are ripening now

We walked past a scattering of houses and farm buildings, noting Collared Doves, Spotless Starlings, House Sparrows, Chiffchaffs, White Wagtails and a Black Redstart, the birds variously perched on power lines, in trees, on walls or just on the roadside. In a sunny spot along a length of Prickly Pear cactus hedge, were several Painted Lady butterflies, perhaps more migrants like the ones I saw arriving over the sea in Sotogrande the other day. One posed interestingly on one of the huge pads of a cactus; the long spines would have provided the insect excellent defence against predators – I wonder if it was aware of that?

A Painted Lady butterfly resting behind the spines of a cactus

Another pristine butterfly - a Speckled Wood

A female Kestrel, spotted perched up high on  a pylon, flew off to hover closely over a grassy field and in a large, roughly grassed field on the opposite side of the road was a flock of sheep and very young lambs, no more than a day or so old. On the floor of the field were more Collared Doves, White Wagtails and Crested Larks.

Sheep grazing in a field against a background of wooded hills of the Alcornocales

Grazing sheep and tiny lambs

Spanish sheep are generally leaner and rangier-looking than most of our UK varieties that have lusher grass to feed on, and their tails are not always docked. The cute new lambs were a mix of colours from white to black and in between, some even piebald.

There are almost always interesting sights to be seen along this little road that meanders quietly through the farmland, and the scenery is always beautiful; lowland fields that are bounded on both sides by rolling hills and Cork Oak woodland. Today there was drama! Close to some farm buildings is an area where scrubby bushes grow along the road edges that were filled with the sounds of a large community of House Sparrows, all seeming to be cheeping and chirping at once. Not surprisingly, such a gathering of small noisy birds attracts more than human attention, and as we strolled past, no doubt chatting as we do,  one of those ‘what just happened?’ moments occurred. Directly in front of us a House Sparrow flew at speed into the cover of a bush, hotly pursued by a Sparrowhawk that dived in after it. It happened in the blink of an eye and took a while for the information to reach our brains and register the incident – absolutely no chance of connecting it to a camera! The hawk was unsuccessful this time, perhaps it caught sight of us and lost concentration momentarily, but this area must seem like a Sparrow take-away to their predators.

A handsome male Stonechat perched on the top of a bush immediately in front of us

The scrubby areas around the fields and along the roadsides make perfect Stonechat habitat too and several male and female birds were about today, the males already perching up on the tops of shrubs and posts announcing their territories. A very large flock of finches flew across a hedge, we thought Goldfinches but it could have been a mixed flock of at least 100 birds.

We were treated to a display of some fascinating Buzzard behaviour as one flew low over a small hillock, quite well- covered with scrubby vegetation, then hovered Kestrel-like over a particular spot, craning its neck downwards and sustaining the position for an impressive amount of time. It dived down, then flew off and returned to repeat the behaviour several times, so it must have spotted something edible down there.

A hovering Buzzard

Passing by farm buildings we kept a lookout for Little Owls; we saw one here earlier in the year as it attracted our attention by calling loudly from a small tree. No luck today though.
We had noticed that Starlings were beginning to gather together now, mostly in small groups in various places along on the high power cables, and as we rounded a corner we encountered a large flock that took off as we approached.
 

A gathering of restless Spotless Starlings

 

We watched as they flew around and across to the other side of the road where they settled into positions on the high power cables amongst an enormous and continually growing flock that was gathering along their length.
 

The flock of Starlings settled on the wires was enormous, we estimated at least 2,000 bird already, with more arriving all the time. There are 112 birds in this picture - a tiny part of the gathering flock.

 

We turned around here to make our way back, stopping for a few moments when our way was blocked by the sheep flock being taken in for the night; the lambs were even cuter close up, I hate to think they might soon be served up on someone’s plate.
 

Corn Bunting - Miliaria calandra Sp. Triguero

 

Passing back past a cattle enclosure a lovely Corn Bunting was perched on a strand of barbed wire along the top of the wire fence, watching us as we walked by but not bothering to move, then a few metres further along there was a final sighting of a Meadow Pipit.
 

Meadow Pipit checking out the cattle enclosure

Bird sightings for the day:

 

Griffon Vultures, Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Spotless Starlings, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtails, Crested Larks, Black Redstart, Chiffchaffs, House Sparrows, Stonechats, Goldfinches, Serins, Blackcaps, Meadow Pipits, Corn Bunting

Not a huge number of species, but more than made up for in the numbers of individual birds, interesting behaviour, and of course the butterflies.

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